Friday, January 17, 2014

My Favorite Era: Cliffhanger (1993)

1993 was something of a comeback year for Sylvester Stallone.  After a string of bad movies, he was in dire need of something, anything that could be construed as sort of good.  Fortunately for him, he had two hits that year, the first of which was Cliffhanger.  Basically "Die Hard on a mountain", it stars Sly as Gabe Walker, a former Rocky Mountain Rescue team member haunted by a tragedy.  He ends up going against a team of thieves led by John Lithgow in an unusually low key performance for the man and the end result is a fun, thrilling, kind of goofy action flick from Renny Harlin.  Let's take a closer look.
  •  First things first, the scenery is amazing with gorgeous mountains and some naturally this leads to some breathtaking shots.
  • The stunts, thanks to the location, are also amazing.  Mountain climbing is pretty dangerous to begin with and the film takes fill advantage of that.
  • The twelve minute opening sequence is quite good as Gabe tries to save his buddy Hal (Michael Rooker) and his girlfriend from a mountain they shouldn't have tried climbing.  Hal ends up fine but the girl ends up taking a 4,000 foot plunge.  Harlin directs the scene about as well as a scene like that can be done.
  • Of course, this being a Stallone movie there is a little bit of humor in that Sly is asked, once again, to portray grief.  And as usual, he doesn't exactly do it well.  It's not First Blood bad or anything but it's just not in his wheelhouse.
  • Also, a general tip for movie watching: If people who do a dangerous job are acting casual and cavalier and the opening credits just finished, things are about to go south for them very quickly.
  • Always nice to see Paul Winfield turn up in something, in this case he gets the role of "Obligatory lawman chasing the bad guy who turns up at the end".
  • Janine Turner isn't too bad as Gabe's girlfriend Jessie.  She was pretty charming on Northern Exposure and it carries over here.  Michael Rooker is also good in his role, though his character is really, really stupid.  He does have one great moment though when he withstands a brutal beating from one of the bad guys before dispatching him with a shotgun and sending him on a long ride down a mountain.
  • John Lithgow is pretty good as Qualen (complete with dodgy English accent), a thief who wants to steal a ton of money from the U.S. Treasury.  The heist scene is pretty damn good and of course, this being a Renny Harlin film, the blood squibs used for bullet hits are quite big and over the top.  Come to think of it, just about everything except for Lithgow (at least until the end) is just amazingly over the top.  The violence, the acting, the stunts, the sound mix.  Hell, you could even say that doing the stunts practically is over the top given the amount danger involved.
  • Maybe it's just the Elmore Leonard fan in me (who am I kidding, it is) but I always find it amusing when the bad guys in a film or TV show turn out to be less than the best of the best when it comes to crime.  Qualen is fairly good at his job (sneering, threatening, killing and having a bad accent) but his team of goons are just not that great.  Dumb, overly violent and psychotic, we're not exactly talking Hans Gruber and his band of slick villains in Die Hard here.  Hell, the only one who is competent is the obligatory female thief and Qualen shoots her dead for no reason other than to intimidate the crooked Treasury Agent working with them.
  • The thing that really makes the movie is the action.  Brutal, well choreographed and shot, it's some of the better stuff in any Stallone film.  Pretty much every bad guy is given a memorable death from being impaled on a stalactite to being swept away by an avalanche to just good old fashioned gunshots and being tossed off a mountain.  It's all good stuff and the sound department makes it even more effective by bumping the sound effects to eleven.
  • About the only action beat that doesn't quite work is the fight with Gabe and Qualen at the end.  Sylvester Stallone vs. John Lithgow isn't exactly a fair fight but on the upside, it's kept relatively short and Stallone has a nice hammy one-liner.
  • Last thing I want to mention is the trailer.  No dialogue, no narration, just images from the film set to choral music.  It's damn impressive and really makes you want to see the movie.
 Cliffhanger put Stallone back on track for the most part after some bad comedies.  His second film of 1993 is one we will get to but this one is maybe the best from his 90's output.

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About Me

I've been a huge fan of action, horror and comedy for as long as I can remember.